This essay was written as a keynote lecture for the Metaphors of Economy conference, organised by Nicole Bracker, Maria Petalidou and Tatiana Rapatzikou at the University of East Anglia, 23 June 2000. It tries, very awkwardly and unsuccessfully, to think about the tradition and possibilities of deliberated doing without in philosophical and cultural thinking. Although I find myself inevitably tangling with what strikes me as the old and unloosable conundrum of negative value theory, namely, how it is that experiences of loss, impoverishment, depletion, indigence, or negativity, can avoid forming themselves into new forms of undesirably positive resource, my principal aim was to find a way of moving aside from, or doing without, this paradox. I wanted instead to try to use the energies of the will-to-destitution to begin instancing a newly stripped and unhoused condition in the thinking about objects, the body, self and culture.
Just where did the metaphor of economy come from? What sustains it, and what does it sustain? What work does it do for us today, and what other kinds of work might it be doing?
There are always, in any society, for there to be a society, relations: similarities, and differences. The more complex and differentiated the society, the more complex its structures of similarity and difference.
For a non-economic vision of the world – the pre-Classical order dreamed of by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things – the deep and exceptionless relatedness of the world is such that everything is penetrated in advance by its similitudes: as above, so below. For an economic apprehension, relations come to be seen not in the light of similitudes, but of exchanges, which is to say, potential equivalences. An economic apprehension begins when time enters the picture, which is to say when the picture dissolves into an abstract field of potentials and possibilities. Such a field lacks the immemorial, always-already unity of the Paracelsian view of the world. Its unity is rather always to-be-achieved, to-be-apprehended. A new kind of work comes into being with the coming of an economic apprehension. The work of tabulating, witnessing and interpreting (which is to say redoubling) the signatures and similitudes of the world which fell to the theologian, the poet, the natural scientist or the lawyer, is now supplemented by the work of the system itself. For, when it becomes an economy, the system of similitudes is put to work, the work of bringing its similitudes into being. Or, to put it another way: the system develops an appetite for itself. It wants to come to be; it comes to want to be. This work is from now on never to be completable, and will never rest. Anything can exchange with anything else, though no longer because of the direct or unmediated analogies between high and low, microcosm and macrocosm, inner and outer, man and God. What guarantees the fact of exchange is rather the existence of the possibility of mediation, such as language or the money form, or libido, that currency of the psyche, as the universal forms of equivalence. As has often been noted, the existence of mediators such as language, or money, or libido, makes everything in principle exchangeable for everything else; and this draws language and money and libido themselves into the exchanges and transactions they allow. You can not only exchange things with the medium of exchange, you can submit the medium of exchange, the currency, to exchange. You can buy and sell money, you can transact with language, you can libidinously hoard and squander and gamble on libido itself. Time, which seems to provide the possibility of a move from inert structures into economic transactions, is also eminently negotiable. Because anything can exchange with anything else, no final or steady state is imaginable. Economies are all-comprehending because they are partial, because they are always at work in part. What has been called the ‘general economy’ – the totality of all economic transactions – is never actualisable in its generality.
There are 151 Pokémon cards to collect, though that number is enlarged by the fact that each of the Pokémon comes in different versions – the regular, the ‘fossil’ and the ‘jungle’ versions, as well as in different ‘evolutions’, or stages of being. The cards are collected in order to be able to play the Pokémon card game with success, but most children simply collect and exchange the cards in order to have the best, which is to say the fullest collection. Pokémon cards signify creatures which the owners are to be imagined as catching and training for combat with other creatures. The combats and their outcomes are the product of the encounter of complex variables, involving different powers and intensity of attack – such as fire attack or sleep attack, as well as powers of defence, all measured numerically in values beteen 10 and 100. These cards are qualified or ptoentiated by energy cards, of different kinds (fire energy, psychic energy, for example), which boost or deplete their power.
Pokémon cards are both deeply implicated in adult economy (the average 9-10 year old probably has about two hundred pounds worth of cards in their collection), and an entire economy in themselves. The cards are both desirable objects and a value-form, like money. They are a measure of value, a world of desire and delight and need and torment. Children aged between 5 and 12 are currently learning their hardest and most intricate lessons about value – and loss – through Pokémon cards. Children invest huge amounts of libido in what are, after all, nothing more than rather attractively coloured little cards, though they do have rather tellingly have the appearance of magic screens. To explicate all their powers one would need an account of the values and powers of the ‘card’ in human life and history. Suffice it here to say that cards – playing cards, postcards, greeting cards, credit cards and ‘smart cards’ of every description – form a secret, alternative currency in human history, a currency that bridges magic and economics (they are a magical economy, an economy of magic) The Freudian phrase I have just used – ‘investing libido’ – implies a world of fixed, disposable quantitites of energy. But Pokémon cards tell us something more, or tell us of a different, more paradoxical economy. For the cards are not merely the repositories of pleasure and possibility, a promise to pay the bearer a certain reliable quantum of pleasure. Theirs is the power of the as-if, or the what-if. They represent the power of the symbol, to conserve and carry, and multiply affect. Pokémon cards embody the power of objects to embody feeling. It is as if the power of the Pokemon card, or the personalised collection, were the very power of divisibility, numerability and permutability themselves: the power to put your libido into little packets, into your pocket. Economic thinking is often opposed to other forms of thinking in terms of the difference between quantitative and qualitative; but Pokémon cards exhibit plainly the quality of quantity; the magic of number. It is no use complaining, as parents do, that these little bits of gaily-coloured card are not worth the attention lavished on them, for that is the point. What children meet and manage through them is their desire itself, a desire which is always, as Baudrillard has brilliantly suggested, a desire for the system that blocks and mediates desire, a ‘passion for the code’ as much as for what it encodes.
A deck of cards is one thing; a deck of cards the number and distribution of which is known is a different, more valuable thing altogether. Entropy, disorder, a scrambled deck, has value in the same way that an untidy room or an overgrown garden has value, as the promise of the order to which they may be brought. In the case of the untidy room or overgrown garden, however, it is plain that considerable amounts of effort will need to be expended in order to bring them out of their state of nature: one’s muscles groan and strain proleptically. In the case of a shuffled deck, the forms of its subsequent organisation are already in it. All I have to do is to deal them out in order for the organisation to take effect as if by itself. To shuffle a deck of cards is to fill it full of power, the power to be reassembled, for time to flow backwards, into order and pattern rather than away from them, like charging a battery.
The very investability of libido, the power for libido to be thus invested, or , even more abstractly, the power for there to be investment, is the power of the libido.
I have been using the word libido as though we knew what it was, as though we had some apprehension of this reservoir of imaginative energy. But if we go to Freud for an explanation of this qualia, for an account of exactly what it is that is invested in the investment of libido, we will be given no clear of satisfactory answer. For example: libido is ‘the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude (though not at present actually measurable) of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word “love” ‘. [Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Standard Edition, XVIII, 90.] The quality of the libido is its capacity to alter levels or quantities of investment, its capacity to provide a measure, which then itself comes to constitute in large part the nature of the power or quality of the libido as such. If you ask what a quantity of libido is a quantity of, the answer must be that it is a certain quantity of the power of quantification. The libido will be simply the quality of quantity, the investable, that-which-is-invested, the ultimate fictitious capital. Libido is, of course, a metaphor; but not just Freud’s. The living out of libido is itself already metaphorical, it is living as if there were quantities of some substance of which it were possible to dispose, as if love were something of which one had a variable reservoir, capable of being tapped and given out replenished. Libido is like magic: you do not need to believe in magic for it to work. Indeed, you have positively not to believe in magic in order for it to work. Magic is the power to look at the world and say ‘what if there were such a thing as magic?’ Almost the whole of what we call aesthetic discourse is this kind of magical thinking, by which I mean, not the mistaking of fiction for truth, or figure for actuality, but the entertainment of the possibility that there might be those (not necessarily us) for whom art might have a magic, redemptive power. The power to say ‘let’s pretend’ is not a pretend power. Libido is the name for the subjunctive idea that there might be such a thing as libido. Magic is the name for the power of the idea that there might be such a thing as magical power. Economics is the name for the power of the idea of the economic.
Pokémon actualises this virtuality. What if it were possible for me to take my desire and divide it up, keep it safe, tally it off, end up with more than I started with? The mere fact that pretending the cards have power is the measure of their power, means that even entertaining the possibility that the cards might have power, has produced a measurable gain, the gain of measurability. This is exactly the kind of gain we hope to reap from an event such as this, the gain in apprehension and understanding.
I know, I have been talking all this time not about this race of Japlish mutants, but about Maxwell’s demon, the imaginary creature who creates energy impossibly and paradoxically in a closed field by the mere act of sorting information, separating out fast-moving from slow-moving particles. How much physical energy did it take to think up the paradox of Maxwell’s demon? Perhaps a hundred kilojoules or so, a Mars bar’s worth? And yet the metaphor has done fantastic amounts of work, far in excess of the effort required to produce it. Where has this energy come from? The energy of the idea of economy comes from itself, from its own operations.
Whenever we think economically, we are thinking in terms of this as-if logic, the same logic which Freud applied to the idea of libido, the fundamental and transferable material in the complex three-personed engine of the self (I am not sure if Freud ever remarked on the relation between his trinitarian psychic entity, with its id, ego and super-ego and the Christian ‘economy’ of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but he might have done). There cannot be an economy without the variation of quantity, and therefore without the idea of some neutral stuff or substance, or neutral measure of variable amount; but this neutral stuff can itself be an imaginary precipitate of the economic hypothesis. Thus, there is in fact no barter economy. As soon as it is possible to exchange one thing for another, the two comparable things have brought into being a third thing, the measure that lies between them and measures this transaction against actual and possible other transactions. If I barter my sheep for your pig, the exchange will be a good or a bad one, depending, depending on this abstract measure. Whenever and wherever money seems to have come at length to light. it has always been there already, if only because of the currency of the soul that is libido, though it may need to wait for money to be able to know itself, and put itself into the reckoning.
Libidinal and magical systems are economic in that they obey the principle of immanence. The general idea of libido and the idea of magic are not separate from the systems they seem to govern: in fact, they are put to work at every point in the system. The idea of economy is not merely an abstract idea, or explanatory hypothesis, produced on the outside of the system, or as an after-effect of it. The hypothesis of an economy, the idea of what an economy is and how it works, is itself put to work within any economy. (If I sell you my house, both of us work with an awareness of prevailing market conditions, and of prevailing, or possibly prevailing conditions in the economy of which the house market forms a part. The idea that we each of us has of what kind of economy this is will form part of that exchange.) The notion of the bagel is folded into the dough. The metaphor of economy does not provide a simple, neutral frame or equivalent for the workings of economy: it is itself employed, or deployed economically. Because economies do not exist in themselves, they can only be figured forth metaphorically: and the metaphors we use to figure forth economies themselves will invariably function economically, which is to say in terms of exchange, equivalence and variable quality. If one wanted to characterise the condition of economics today, it would not need to be in terms of a progressive extension of economic relations into areas previously held to be noneconomic or immune to exchange relations. In my view, there has always been as much economy, as much exchange, in as many areas of life, as there is now. This is to say that there has always been as much economy as there can possibly be. What may be new is the intensity of the investment in the idea of the economic – the rapidly iterative feedback of notions of the economic into systems of exchange.
During the eighteenth century, it became clear that it was not just human societies that could enter into economic relations. It became clear that the physical world too was comprehensible in terms of systems and broadly economic relations between movements and forces. The making out of the principles of thermodynamics established and substantiated the possibility not only of the balance and reciprocity of different elements, but also the convertibility of different forces. The regime of thermodynamics, which depended upon the extraction of huge amounts of work from processes of heating, cooling and the circulation of heat, with the consequent expansion and contraction of materials, lasted for a century from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. Already, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the discovery of electromagnetic induction had opened up the possibility of other kinds of natural economy, and technologies that created conversions and exchanges between the physical world and the body’s senses as well as its kinetic powers. Not surprisingly, human pathology mimicked the economic circulation of energies between the human and the nonhuman world. Hysteria is a disease of conversion, which comes about as a dramatisation of the blockage of circulation – the ideal but abstract conversion of impulse and desire into warrantable speech – but dramatically figures the new economic relations of convertibility and exchange between the mind and the body. Hysteria, as a conversion syndrome, already acts out the kinds of bodily economy which were to suggest to Freud the importance of the economic metaphor of the self.
The next century, the electric age, from 1850 onwards, was dominated by electrodynamic economy and its correlatives. Electricity was the new value form that allowed human endeavour and aspiration not just to act on the world of matter but to transact with it, to be represented in terms of it, to enter into exchanges with it. In the soft mechanics of the telegraph, the camera, the phonograph, the electric light, the patterning of tiny fluctuations in electric charge replaced the large and highly-visible calorific exchanges governing the power-loom and the steam-piston. People not only desired electricity, ungovernably: electricity was the form of desire, a bodily force that matched the subtlety and sensibility of a lived human body. The result was a discernible expansion and complexification of the idea of work. If the nineteenth century moralised matter, focussing on energy and idleness, the drawing of the senses into the mechanical model of work was essential for the development of a consumer economy in which the work of sensory attention – looking, listening, feeling – will become part of the economy.
The period following the Second World War established the possibility of economic exchange between two more areas of thought which had previously been thought to be related only metaphorically; theory of information as it was developed in the cybernetics of Shannon and others, and theory of energy and chaos in physical systems. If energy was a kind of information, then information too could be a kind of energy. Knowledge, language, codes, could be thought of in terms of circulating quanta of energy. Central to both information and energy was the principle of entropy, the notion that the amount of usable energy in a closed system will inevitably decline over time without the introduction of energy differentials from other sources. Not only is death the assured outcome of any system,it may be the orientating and motivating force of any system. An economic principle. The economic metaphors which bound together information theory and chaos theory gradually began to become literal, substantial. The commutability of energy and information, as actualised in electronic as opposed to electrodynamic forms of organisation, is the most amazing contemporary extension of the powers of the economic metaphor.
So the thermodynamic expands into the electromagnetic, which then expands into the ergoinformatic. This era of generalised interconvertibility makes available the most extreme and unexpected kinds of economic exchange. Postmodern theory has been enlivened, for example, by Lyotard’s principle of incommensurables, and the injustice of submitting incommensurable standards of judgement or experience to intermediary modes of judgement. But Lyotard’s claim for the existence of incommensurables can do nothing but demonstrate that there are in fact no true incommensurables, no systems of value between which no relations of equivalence or exchange can exist, no differences that are not exchangeable differences, differences measured by their equivalence. What Lyotard did was invent, or name (here, naming is in part inventing) a new measure of equivalence: the incommensurability index.
So much for a swift review of the mythology of the economic: the oft-told story of the emergence of a world of universal exchange value from a world of given and steady equivalences. Jean Baudrillard has suggested that, rather than reverting to a pre-economic situation, the acceleration of simulational activities has produced a situation in which there is no time left and therefore no value left. Exchange has gobbled up even the medium which drives it, namely, time. The odds is gone and there is nothing left remarkable. Everything has already happened, every transaction has already taken place. It is a situation in which an entropic death has been reached, or might as well have been, the cancellation of all tensions or differences. If economic thinking brought the unpredictability of time into social life, the forms of social life have redigested time so thoroughly into themselves as to have rendered the whole system timeless, without affect.
Against this account of the ever-expanding sphere of economic thinking, a counter-story has been told of the attempt to escape or resist economy, to reestablish a world of self-sufficiency, or use-value.
Two broadly economic ideals drive the resistance to economy in philosophy. One attempts to analyse economy in order to move beyond or back from it, to invent or rescue areas or instances of the non-economic: art, virtue, love, morality, truth. The other works by means of multiplication and intensification, by the extension of the economic metaphor to areas – like the body – to which it would seem to have little application, as in Lyotard’s notion of the libidinal economy. This inflation or hypercapitalisation of the idea of economy can encompass both its major mode, in the Bataillean interest in forms of excessiveness, ‘pure’ expenditure and waste, and its minor mode, the interest in the minimal, in impoverishment, negativity and death, in that which falls short of economy rather than intensifying it, that which economy must transform and overcome to assert itself.
The first thing to be noted is that there is nothing, no depletion, no loss, no lack, that can in principle avoid the recursion of economy, nothing that cannot furnish some kind of symbolic capital, nothing that cannot be some good to somebody, precisely on the grounds of what Beckett calls its ‘lessness’. Were I to be recommending to you here the extremest form of ablation of the economic I would be recommending it on the grounds of its differential value, I would have put it to work for my own purposes, and have wagered that your time was better spent in hearing about it, or at least as well spent, as in doing any of the other things that you might have been doing. This is what, in an earlier attempt to get the measure of this kind of thing, I called the principle of generalised positivity in economic thinking. Just as, according to Freud, there is no negation in the unconscious or in dreaming life, so there is no negativity which can be counted on to stay put as negativity in economic life. For anything to have economic meaning or function is for it to have entered into relations with other elements in an economy, relations which give it a positive measure, which make it some good, where, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, ‘ “good” operates within the discourse of value as does money in a cash economy: good is the universal value-form of value and its standard “measure”; it is that “in terms of which” all forms of value must be “expressed” for their commensurability to be calculated; and good is that for which and into which any other name or form of value can – “on demand,” we might say – be exchanged.’ [Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives For Critical Theory (Cambridge: Hardvard University Press, 1988), p. 146.] But there are similarly two styles or orientations in the thinking of economy which, following Bataille’s terms, we can call restricted or generalised. One style looks and renders everything in terms of the different areas of human life and organisation, mistrusting every transcendence and showing the human, all too human basis of every apparently extrahuman source of value. This style of thinking extends from Nietzsche and Freud through Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Habermas, Derrida and Levinas. The master-measure for all these thinkers is that of discourse. Everything is reducible to, renderable in terms of and recoverable as, discourse. For all their emphasis on the decentring of the human, the idea of discourse retains human society, and its particular ways of decentring itself, as the measure of all things for all these thinkers.
There is another style or current of modern philosophical reflection on the economic, which is inaugurated in the work of Bataille and tracks erratically through the work of such as Baudrillard, Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres and Latour. This accepts and embraces the opening of the human out on to the nonhuman, reading the economies of human life and organisation in terms of their relations with the economies and energetics of physical systems, and accepting that language is not the final or governing measure of these exchanges.
Even more striking, this way of thinking of economy offers a way out of, or aside from, the sterile circuit of aspiration, whereby one dreams of an escape from economy, in religious transcendence, in aesthetic disinterestedness, in the immediacy or gratuity of the gift, in use-value, only to find onself reaffirming the economic. The work of these thinkers takes seriously the idea of a principle opposed to economy which nevertheless works on the inside of economy, is immanent to economy itself; of economies opened to their outside on their inside. The root for this is Freud’s death-drive, which he found himself in Beyond the Pleasure Principle having to characterise as a principle opposed to the getting of pleasure and maintaining of pleasurable life, which nevertheless could never appear except in the form of intricate economic exchanges with life and the pleasure principle. With his attempts to characterise the death-drive, Freud opens the possibility of thinking an aneconomic principle that is no kind of simple opponent of economy (nothing could be more economic than the death drive, which is all economy from start to finish and never expresses itself more authentically than in its hijacking of the forms and energies of tallying and mensuration, counting out and counting off) There are those who have wondered whether there is not a perspective from which the death drive might not appear negative. This might not be because it had escaped economy, or transcended it, or even slipped beneath it, but because it had slipped into all economy, became identical with it. What Freud called the death-drive, with his characteristic mixture of brazenness and timidity, has been given different names: Bataille calls it expenditure or interior experience; Baudrillard calls it ambivalence or symbolic exchange; Serres calls it the parasite; Lyotard calls it the inhuman. I propose today to call it – though it is by now the slitheriest sort of it one could imagine – destitution.
Freud wonders whether what he calls the life instincts and the death instincts might not better be designated as the powers of Eros and Thanatos. Eros, or life, signifies the desire for concentration and aggregation or more and more complex unity. Thanatos expresses itself in the desire for attenuation and disaggregation (though in this case it is a source of deep and exquisite puzzlement to Freud what kind of entity could possibly have such a desire). The two cannot be finally distinguished (and if they were, would that act of distinguishing fall under the sign of Eros or of Thanatos?) For without distinction, there can be no connection, and with distinction, there is always the possibility of connection. This paradox recurs in some of the writing of Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion on the splittings of the self in the paranoid-schizophrenic stage. Unable to tolerate or hold together violent ambivalence, the child or psychotic mounts what Bion calls an ‘attack on links’, in the attempt to separate everything out, to pulverise every aggregate into its component functions and disperse them to the four winds, creating a peaceful world of first or last things in which nothing has anything at all to do with anything else. The purpose of this is to prevent combination, with the consequent anxiety of ambivalence. This attempt to evade or to explode economy by getting oneself on to the side of entropy can always result in an increase of information, of significance, of vital tension. Things start to hold together in the very forms of their falling apart.
The vitalism of Deleuze and Guattari depends upon the intermingling of the two principles of Eros and Thanatos; of assemblage and blockage, territories and deterritorialisation, organs and the body without organs. Machines, they write, only start to work when it breaks down, when a flow is blocked or diverted into a new channel. Michel Serres’s notion of the parasite follows through the forms of a similar commutability of signal and noise, of information and the degradations against which it must strive. [Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).] There is no exchange, of goods, or messages, without some spillage, some ratio sequestered by ‘the parasite’. Serres does not name him, but his whole book about the parasite might have been written under the sign of the demon Tutivullus, who was believed to freqent churches, in order to capture and carry off to Hell the stammers and stumbles and bishes of the priest preaching the sermon. As soon as one collects and conserves such detritus, of course, one begins to reintegrate the unintegrated.
Eros and thanatos have their correlates in the two sides or moments of economic thinking. One side holds everything together, in larger and more comprehensive assemblages and equivalences. The other side breaks things apart, by holding the idea of the total system at bay. To think economically may mean to subject one’s entire system of thinking to the idea of economy, which is to say to the possibility of equivalence as such; or it may mean to think locally, in terms of an ‘immediate mediation’ of two factors or qualities without reference – yet – to a total system of equivalence.
Destitution has two meanings or forms. In its earlier meaning, destitution meant the privation of a particular good or quality or attribute: the destitution of a member, or a form of property. The term has now acquired a more generalised meaning: one is ‘destitute’ as such, in a condition of abject and helpless poverty that is in a sense beyond the measurement of less and more. In certain legal and bureaucratic contexts, destitution means a condition – usually precisely defined – in which the individual can no longer be assumed to have self-ownership, or economic responsibility for himself or herself at all. Destitution encodes a play between measurability and immeasurability, between the economic and the uneconomic. It is destitution to which Beckett is referring when he says that ‘There is more than a difference of degree between being short, short of the world, short of self, and being without those esteemed commodities. The one is a predicament, the other not’, Beckettt writes in his Three Dialogues With Georges Duthuit. Beckett perhaps means that falling short is a predicament for those for whom degrees are what count, but an opportunity for those for whom they don’t count, or don’t count absolutely.
I would like destitution to stand for the idea of the economy of death within economy. Destitution is the economy that does without the idea of economy while going on within it. What I mean by destitution is not something taken away: an organ removed, some funding reduced, something of which the lack may be measured according to some invariant notion of the good, something that leaves a reckonable deficit, a measurable vacancy, a specifiable loss. Destitution is not castration, which reliably puts back the name of your loss in place of the loss, castration as the ultimate restitution. I mean a loss which loses the dimension of loss itself, the impossibility of being summed up in loss, as loss. Destitution is therefore not a state of mind, a mystical plenitude, and certainly not an all-encompassing principle, a value or regulable ideal. But it is something that occurs to one, on and off.
What could it mean to think destitutively?
Everything is full of itself. There are no forms of life that are exhausted by the minus sign that hovers over them: every kind of deficit, powerlessness, homelessness, friendlessness, voicelessness, lifelessness, has a reality in excess of that of which it is deficient, a reality in excess of the mere condition of being short of some or other good or desirable condition. Homelessness is not the condition of not having a home, even if it arises from it; it is an utterly new condition that blisters or propagates out of the initial condition of having no home. Poverty is not just the absence of wealth nor suffering a shortfall of well-being. Hunger is dissipated by food, but it is not wholly defined by it. Last year I finished writing a book about the history of ventriloquism and the disembodied voice in which I spend 450 pages demonstrating to myself the central axiom that there is no disembodied voice. Separate the voice from the visible body, and what you get is not a disembodied voice: not a voice-minus-body. What you get is a differently embodied voice, a different kind of voice-body: a machine that has found a new way to work by breaking down. Similarly, the metaphorical loss or appropriation of voice which is so feared in contemporary cultural-political writing, is not a simple depletion.
These forms of depleted life are not made glorious or sublime, or desirable, or any other kind of alternative good, by being noticed, being described. But they are made into, or retained as, a something, a form of life. I am not, god help us, asserting the need to assert the dignity of the dispossessed, the dignity of being poor, maimed, repulsive or merely one of the legion underneath. I am just saying that these forms of life are themselves, are in fact forms of life. They are something other than the non-apparence of what they lack, and more than merely what is missing in them. Hunger, disappointment, depression, indignity, panic, fatigue, being crippled, despised, blamed, ugly, aged and unloved; there are kinds of life in all of these, which are not merely the life breaking through in them despite everything. Deleuze and Guattari have spoken of the writers and artists who dig out their underdevelopment by digging into it, who find the life in lifelessness. But it is not just life that is to be glimpsed in these conditions, but an other than life in their less than life. Deleuze and Guattari stand out against the domination of the idea of lack, but themselves tolerate nothing short of teeming, multitudinous, alternative life in everything: but I marshall Bernie Taupin against them. Life, as Elton John sang, isn’t everything. We need not mistake being for well-being, nor well-being for life. Not everyone can get a life, but everybody and everything will have to have ended up making a living. It seems to me that there might be here and there be those who would notice such things.
I think we can tell that these forms of life exist by the degree of superstitious aversion they inspire. Why should the gypsies – these ‘incomparably weak people’ as they have been called by Isabel Fonseca [‘The Truth About Gypsies’. Guardian G2 (March 24, 2000), p. 3] – who have been feared and despised and shunned and moved on and wiped out for so many centuries in Europe, be the subject of so much hatred? What is it about propertyless and abased people which makes us so want to smash them? It is not defensive fear at the thought that we might one day become as them, nor even dread that the seven yellow gypsies will steal the hearts of our ladies-o. It is the fact that they have a form of life which declines to belong to our ways of belonging, though without ever being exactly opposed to it. It is the recognition they force upon us that there is no simple lack – the lack of education, home, or means – the abolition of which would put paid to the kind of life they have and have had. It is the recognition that we may not be recognised by this form of life, might not count. You will tell me that this is the wearying and contemptible romanticising of the wretched that has done so much harm, the violent translation of raw disadvantage into exotic difference. This is not cultural difference, which is always in and of economy: it is destitution.
The lessons taught by this are not wholly political, though not in principle not so. There is always politics, and there are a million political struggles to be fought to reduce suffering and deprivation and hunger, and abate arrogance and stupidity and cruelty and selfishness. But there is another struggle, a politically meaningless struggle, to forestall the denial of the fact that suffering and deprived people have in fact lived lives, a struggle to corrugate our assurance that our success is the measure of their failure to have added up to being men, or women, at all, a dogmatic affirmation of the fact that, though they may have been something short of being, their being has been a something, and a something that is still some considerable way short of being nothing at all.
I don’t want destitution to be a keynote: but a gracenote. Something else, something gratuitous – though not indemnified as always and under all conceivable circumstances being something reliably other or gratuitous. When I see so much striving for guaranteed triumph, for assured outcomes, for abundance, I feel more and more on the side of the gloom, the shame, the minority that is dispensed with for all that ubiquitous prosperity to be, for that quite unlosable game to continue.
Economy is not an invention of capitalism or patriarchy or Protestantism or Judaism or anything else. Humanity is the economic species. Economy and economics are what we do, from the word go, and for ever and ever amen. Nor are we economic creatures because we are lingustic creatures, despite the tight intertwining of language and economics, indeed the unthinkability of economics without language. Language is necessary to economics, or at least highly useful for it, but it is not sufficient to guarantee it. Perhaps we are the linguistic species because we are the economic species. We may even be mathematical beings because we are economic beings, rather than the other way round. Human beings feel and comprehend economics very deeply and closely. We have an instinct for economics partly because – and does Freud ever have a more brilliant apprehension? – our instincts themselves take economic forms. We desire mathematics, we manufacture more and more ways of coinciding with mathematics, because our desire is mathematical. What does this mean? It means that we can think outside or beyond ‘the economic’ – indeed that we can scarcely help doing so. What we are good at doing is knowing not only what the going rate (wonderful phrase) of something currently is, but also imagining what it might be. We are good at imagining economies, at imaginary economics (all economics are imaginary economics). Think of ecological cost-benefit analyses, which imagine ways of measuring the hurt and gain of any particular enterprise in ways that would have seemed unthinkable a dozen years ago: the cost of the loss of a species, a lake, a wood, measured against the measurable benefits of travelling from one point to another more quickly more quickly: measured, so to speak, against measurability itself.
Economic thinking is not something to be transcended, for it transcends itself. It transcends itself because economic thinking is anyway not one thing. This is because it is thought economically. There is always calculation and wager, because deciding not to calculate is so clearly itself only another kind of calculation. But what kind? There is also always more than one way to do the calculation, more than way of estimating the value of the results of the calculation. What economy or economics is, is always in question: always to be decided in practice, because that’s what economy means, that holding in abeyance, that waiting to see. The wisest sort of economist is always a radical pragmatist, of the kind that there may yet be time for me to learn how to turn out to be, because they know that the one thing you can know for sure about markets is that you can never know. What is more, you also never know whether not knowing is going to turn out to be an advantage or an impediment, something you can count on, or not. As the geneticist Eric Lander has remarked: ‘I’m a big fan of… ignorance-based techniques because humans have a lot of ignorance, and we want to play to our strong suit.’ [New Scientist, 2234 (April 2000), Keystone Conference Supplement, p. 16.] We are never going to be able to be sure what will count as, or turn out to be, economic kinds of behaviour or consideration.
Destitution is related to this not-yet economics. So my interest (though not, of course, for all time, not even for whatever remains of mine) is not in destitution as such, as a principle of life and thought. It is not any kind of primitivism. It is in particular kinds and forms of destitution, particular subtractions, shortfalls, or ways of being without. These forms of being without look like their meaning and being are wholly exhausted in what they are not or that in which they are deficient; but they have other kinds of meaning than their negativity. We need, by which I mean I would like more of us, more of me, to feel the need, to undertake a willed destitution (doing without, putting aside, forswearing) of the generalised economic thinking that cannot see that everything is full of itself, cannot see that everything is a world. What is left when judgements of value and advantage and necessity and profit are subtracted? Multitudes. Depending on your understanding of what economy means, this is either a partail renunciation of economic thinking, or a plunging in to it up to our necks and even over our heads. Ask not, then, What does all this add up to? Rather wonder, what a destitutive thought, might, in time, from time to time, come down to.